Although previous research provides evidence for the role of rewarding activities in reducing hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis responses to stress, no studies have tested whether rewards can buffer cortisol responses in humans undergoing social stressors.
This study experimentally investigated whether viewing appetitive rewarding pictures reduces cortisol responses to an acute stress challenge. Fifty-four heterosexual men were randomly assigned to view either mildly erotic (reward) or neutral images (control) of mixed-sex couples before completing the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST).
Participants in the reward condition had significantly lower area-under-the-curve cortisol reactivity to the TSST (mean [M] = 363.46) in comparison with participants in the control group (M = 807.06; F(1,46) = 4.84, p = .033, η2 = 0.095). Reward participants also had improved cognitive performance on the math portion of the TSST (M = 20.74) in comparison with control participants (M = 13.82; F(44) = 5.44, p = .024, η2 = 0.11). The stress-buffering effects of reward were specific to hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis reactivity: the reward and control groups did not differ on psychological perceptions of anticipatory or poststress perceptions, heart rate, or blood pressure responses.
This research provides the first evidence linking the experience of reward with reduced stress reactivity in humans and suggests a potential novel reward pathway for coping under stress.